Most people who go to classical concerts have never been homeless, and never will be. What is it like? That's not a question frequently addressed on recital platforms: Classical music has a limited track record in confronting pressing social issues, and trades mainly on its value as a source of entertainment and generalized cultural edification.
For 90 minutes on Thursday evening at MacPhail Center, that trend was sharply bucked in "Would You Harbor Me?", a program curated by the nine-man vocal ensemble Cantus.
The format was unusual for a classical event. Stage left, beside the singers, was a projection screen, operated unobtrusively from a laptop. Between the musical numbers, monochrome images of homeless people were projected, many from the Twin Cities, with recordings of their stories. Eviction, job loss, drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, mental dysfunction — the litany of trigger factors causing homelessness was grim, and mitigated only in the calm dignity of the victims' telling.
Counterpointing the oral and visual material was the music. Some of it was, in a quiet way, unmistakably confrontational. "Would you harbor an exile or a refugee?" asks composer Ysaye Barnwell, to the thrum of solemn chant patterns. "A Haitian, Korean, or Czech, a lesbian or a gay?" Such questions resonate uncomfortably in the corrosive atmosphere of the 2016 electoral cycle.
Kenneth Jennings' setting of the Dylan Thomas poem "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" mined a more primal vein of musical expression, the darker tonal colorations and surges of raw emotion unsettlingly rendered by the singers. Sydney Guillaume's "Gagòt," by contrast, was a rare opportunity to tap the lighter side of the "mess upon mess" that a crumbling life can descend to, its jerky, life-filled rhythms a source of renewable energy and eventual redemption.
Although Cantus prides itself on vocal teamwork, and sang with wonderful blend and expressivity throughout the evening, there were striking individual contributions. Paul John Rudoi excelled as the stirring tenor soloist in the African-American spiritual "Been in the Storm So Long," and his own piece "America Will Be!" was especially powerful, eliciting a ringing top-note finish from tenor Joe Shadday.
This was not always an easy evening, and it wasn't meant to be. Music is too often merely the food of love and leisurely distraction, and too rarely food for serious reflection. The sounds and images of "Would You Harbor Me?" lodge firmly in the memory, a pang to conscience and — who knows? — perhaps a stimulant to serious action.
Terry Blain is a Twin Cities-based music critic.